Thursday, December 15, 2016

Balancing deep awareness of existing knowledge vs. making new connections and developing new interpretations

As the floodgates of information have opened and data and detritus flowed through since the internet, I have tried to be conscientious in my construction of a disparate but focused, traditional but innovative, exploratory but confirming portfolio of knowledge sources. I want to know more about things I am interested in, I want to discover things I don't even know I don't know, I want help connecting things that are related but appear discrete. I also want to screen out noise and low value information. There is no perfect mix and indeed the goals are inconsistent. Finding new ideas entails reviewing a lot of speculation that is simply wrong. Understanding more about things I am reasonably informed about involves getting through a lot of duplicative material. There is no easy solution.

In fact there is no algorithmic solution at all. It is simply a matter of constant personal behavior management, adjusting behaviors and practices to needs within a more strategic construct of ultimate goals. All being done within the real constraint of available time.

I found Exploration and exploitation of Victorian science in Darwin's reading notebooks by J. Murdock, C. Allen, and S. DeDeo interesting.

From the abstract:
Search in an environment with an uncertain distribution of resources involves a trade-off between exploitation of past discoveries and further exploration. This extends to information foraging, where a knowledge-seeker shifts between reading in depth and studying new domains. To study this decision-making process, we examine the reading choices made by one of the most celebrated scientists of the modern era: Charles Darwin. From the full-text of books listed in his chronologically-organized reading journals, we generate topic models to quantify his local (text-to-text) and global (text-to-past) reading decisions using Kullback-Liebler Divergence, a cognitively-validated, information-theoretic measure of relative surprise. Rather than a pattern of surprise-minimization, corresponding to a pure exploitation strategy, Darwin's behavior shifts from early exploitation to later exploration, seeking unusually high levels of cognitive surprise relative to previous eras. These shifts, detected by an unsupervised Bayesian model, correlate with major intellectual epochs of his career as identified both by qualitative scholarship and Darwin's own self-commentary. Our methods allow us to compare his consumption of texts with their publication order. We find Darwin's consumption more exploratory than the culture's production, suggesting that underneath gradual societal changes are the explorations of individual synthesis and discovery. Our quantitative methods advance the study of cognitive search through a framework for testing interactions between individual and collective behavior and between short- and long-term consumption choices. This novel application of topic modeling to characterize individual reading complements widespread studies of collective scientific behavior.
My interpretation of this dense description: Darwin invested his time early in his career in laying down a base of knowledge from work by others. Having mastered the fields, he then shifted his epistemological focus to exploration, seeking new ideas and new connections and interpretations.

Darwin's consumption of knowledge resources in has later life were more discovery oriented than was reflected in the nature of knowledge materials being produced. In other words, most books published focused on disseminating received knowledge whereas most books Darwin read were more focused on establishing different interpretations, new connections, and simple discovery.

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